Tuesday, August 31, 2010
A Funny Sort Of Day
I’ve never been the sort of person to embrace being up late at night. Even when I had a car I didn’t drive around the streets at odd hours, I’m not the sort of person to be found brooding in a bar at last call—although there was a night at the Dresden a few weeks ago which was an exception—and I’m not usually the sort to be sitting at an all-night diner’s counter at 3 AM drinking decaf. Does anyone ever go to Fred 62 and actually do that? What I’m feeling lately isn’t quite insomnia, because I do eventually fall asleep. But there is plenty of tossing and turning so I know that I’m worried, consumed with thoughts of anything that might be coming in the future. It’s been that kind of summer, that kind of August, the kind where I look up and go…what the hell happened? It’s been a strange time, so I’m in kind of a mood. And I still don’t have a car. I don’t even have much interest in looking right now.
So Edgar Wright’s SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD has opened and whatever has happened in terms of its reception has happened. I enjoyed the film (with some reservations but since I’ve only seen it once I’m not going to be writing anything on it right now), maybe slightly more as I was watching it than while thinking about it afterwards, just as I also enjoyed his previous film HOT FUZZ. But, for me, very few films over the past decade have come close to how I feel about Wright’s own SHAUN OF THE DEAD and I really don’t exaggerate when I say that it stands out to me more than just about any other movie that opened in the aughts, right up there with MULHOLLAND DRIVE, SIDEWAYS and maybe a few others. SCOTT PILGRIM examines its array of mostly twentysomething characters from a somewhat outside perspective while still identifying with them and their world as much as possible. In contrast SHAUN OF THE DEAD feels very much right in there with its characters who have moved past the twentysomething stage and are moving close to actually being the perilous age of thirty. I’ve moved long past that stage now too.
To go back a little bit, several years ago I got in the habit of watching SHAUN OF THE DEAD a lot. And I’m not exaggerating, I did at least one viewing a week for what seemed like months. At least once I even followed it up immediately with the original DAWN OF THE DEAD, which is probably a little obvious but it was a great double bill anyway. That was back during the period before I started to write this blog and in some ways it was a good thing to stop watching it so much. For one reason, looking for new films to write about gave me the excuse to start seeing things I hadn’t seen yet, to continue my education as it were. But I saw it enough that returning to it after some time away for another viewing didn’t really offer any new revelations. And now that I’ve seen each episode of SPACED multiple times, seen the various actors in other things, had Edgar Wright fall asleep in the row behind me at the New Beverly during a showing of BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, there’s no way it can provide the same sort of surprise for me that it did way back in ’04. If anything, returning to it now kind of depressed the hell out of me for the first few minutes serving as an almost vicious reminder for me how I haven’t moved as far away from what the lead character is going through as I would have liked to by this point in my life. I’m still trying, but in that sense it kind of stung. And if the film was still going to get me to respond in this way, that has to say something. At a certain point, I was able to put all the feelings of regret and depression aside, allowing me to love it like I always do.
If you haven’t seen SHAUN OF THE DEAD, I don’t know what you’re doing reading this, but just in case: Directionless 29 year-old Foree Electric salesman Shaun (Simon Pegg) who is perfectly content to spend most of his nights drinking pints at the local pub The Winchester is given an ultimatum but longtime girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield) to turn his life around but though he wants to he blows what seems to be his one last chance. After Liz dumps him in full view of her best friends David (Dylan Moran) and Diane (Lucy Davis) Shaun spends the night drinking away his sorrows with best pal Ed (Nick Frost), a low-level drug dealer who’s even more of a screw up than Shaun is. They wake up the next morning, fully hungover, with Shaun determined to figure out how to turn his life around, only to discover that something has changed and that for reasons unknown London is suddenly being overrun by zombies. Realizing that he has no choice but to spring into action, Shaun decides he must venture out into the world to rescue his mom Barbara (Penelope Wilton) and stepdad--not his dad--Philip (Bill Nighy) but also make sure that Liz is safe and with Ed decides that there’s only one place where they can all be safe, the very place where Shaun probably would have been spending the day with Ed anyway.
Back on my first viewing in Fall 2004 the experience of viewing SHAUN played as a needed tonic to the unnecessary remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD from earlier that year, a film which after an effective first ten minutes became loud, frantic and witless. From the first moment of SHAUN, I could sense several others in the audience laughing at the same things I was while others there were just as obviously sitting there completely stone-faced but, of course, that’s just the way it goes sometimes with films that ultimately become known as cult movies. More than the spoof it may have seemed from the ads and more than the straight-out horror films that it pays loving tribute to SHAUN is simply a perfectly pitched character comedy that gets deserved, organic laughs in scene after scene while still making plain its complete love for every zombie film ever made in a way that truly means it. Wright’s directorial eye, trained in TV all those years, knows exactly what to be aiming its camera at, whether during the celebrated repeated Steadicam shots of Shaun making his way through his neighborhood in the early morning as well as during the multiple wide Scope shots of his entire ensemble trapped in the middle of this unexpected zombie outbreak. Barely taking a moment to breathe, the film keeps things expertly paced right from the start with the well-staged opening sections containing a growing feel of genuine dread emerging from the background. As a director Wright even uses inserts well, not something that you can say about any number of hacks directing $200 million movies out there. And the references to other famous zombie films, particularly from the Romero universe, feel layered and pertinent such as the radio heard reporting on a returning Jupiter probe and even when the in-jokes are placed in the foreground like the infamous “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!” it manages to still not play as intrusive. The movie manages to nail the issue of exposition in its treatment of explaining why this outbreak has happened and even the news reports seen on TV—always a tricky element of these films—feel completely authentic. The occasional offhand pop culture references feel right as well. Who needs to hang on to their copy of Prince’s BATMAN soundtrack, anyway?
By the time I returned to the film on its DVD release I found myself watching it repeatedly, moving beyond just the jokes and references, intensely connecting to it in how it came from an obviously personal place in its creator’s lives while at the same time getting me to laugh out loud even while watching it by myself. The ultimate joke of the Winchester being the most dependable romantic spot as well as thought of as “an impenetrable fortress” could only have been conceived by somebody who woke up hungover one morning and realized they may have been spending a few too many nights in the same place. I think I’ve been there. The screenplay by Wright and Pegg feels absolutely airtight in how it builds its story through enormously clever dialogue and character development, constantly delineating the ultra-twisted nature of this particular hero’s journey with true expertise in storytelling all the way down to the perfect final shot. Hell, even the film’s fart joke is good and anyone who knows me would confirm that’s something I never say. Just about the one minor issue I can pinpoint on a screenplay level might be how the titular character doesn’t really have much to define him like how Simon Pegg’s SPACED character wanted to draw comic books—background info of him being a club DJ was almost entirely cut out presumably because it didn’t have much to do with things in the end (kind of like how Billy Peltzer’s ambitions of being, what do you know, a comic book artist in GREMLINS didn’t have much of an effect in that film either) which is just about the biggest flaw in how the script is laid out. Of course, if that’s the biggest flaw then it’s probably a good sign and Pegg’s performance infuses him with the right amount of inner life anyway. The schematics of the script do become somewhat apparent after watching it multiple times, which of course sometimes adds to the humor, with dialogue callbacks (“Glad somebody made it”) and repeated actions intended to underline certain situations but the way it all plays there’s not a wasted moment—the running gag with Yvonne certainly has an added level to it after seeing SPACED but it works great either way. It remains amazing to me how the film juggles its tone from having the comedy mix with the gore but neither one ever overwhelming the other and still becoming emotional by a certain point with spot-on dialogue for each character that couldn’t be better. Besides, there’s a lot to be said about a film that correctly balances so many elements in its screenplay as this one does—hell, I’ve tried that before and pretty much failed each time. There have been plenty of late nights where I’ve sat there practically in tears during some moments near the end of this film and, to be honest, that’s probably as much of a reason as anything for my multiple viewings over the years. I love this movie.
The cast couldn’t be more ideal during all comic and serious moments throughout with Wright making his ensemble work together just as well , maybe better, than the cast of SPACED ever did. Simon Pegg is just amazing in the lead role, making his character’s transformation to from indecisive electronics salesman to DEER HUNTER-style warrior totally believable in this context. The leap in the quality of his performance as Tim on SPACED, where he was arguably sometimes outshined by his female co-star, and Shaun in this film is undeniable. Nick Frost as Ed pulls off the neat trick of playing someone who should by all reason be totally intolerable and making him a believably loyal friend. Kate Ashfield also does a good job with what is a very tricky role that in other hands might come off as too much of a drip—after all, Lucy Davis might be a little cuter but Ashfield plays Liz as someone who would be a great girlfriend if you’d pay the right kind of attention to her. She’s intelligent enough that you can believe she wants something a little more while also injecting a little humor into the character so you can buy why Shaun feels so strongly about her. Lucy Davis, Dylan Moran and the great Bill Nighy each bring a great amount of sharp comic depth to the quirks of their supporting roles and every time I see the film Penelope Wilton as Shaun’s mom Barbara just destroys me in her final scene to the point where I sometimes feel like skipping past it. There’s not a bad moment by an actor here, even the bit players and Wright’s treatment of things makes it so even the unlikable ones make sense—Roommate Pete as played by Peter Serafinowicz (the voice of Darth Maul, of course) really is kind of a ‘prick’ in how he behaves, but he’s not wrong in what he has to say to Shaun either. Maybe I’ve seen this film so many times that I easily separate it from SPACED in my head and I never quite see the character of Daisy in Jessica Hynes née Stevenson’s very funny running cameo of Yvonne. If anything, I’m always wondering just what’s going on in that character’s own, immensely more exciting movie as we’re probably supposed to do.
It’s the personal tinge to SHAUN OF THE DEAD that moves through every hysterically arch and deadly serious moment that I feel in my bones, that has made me want to keep watching it countless times over the years, As if that touch not only adds to the drama but to the cinematic invention in there as well, a release of everything creative that Wright and Pegg had ever wanted to achieve up to that point with the final result working beautifully. HOT FUZZ is very enjoyable but it feels like more of a genre goof in comparison and even if Wright did shoot most of that film in his hometown, maybe following through on some childhood fantasy of what kind of film he could shoot there, the touch of the undeniably personal feels lost. SCOTT PILGRIM is a bigger, more intense clash of real life vs. pop culture in all its forms (movies, video games, music, whatever) than he has ever attempted before and while there are many things about it I genuinely like I’m not sure how much of it has stayed with me. The female character of Ramona Flowers in that film is the sort of cool, attractive girl I’d go for myself but she remains a little too much of a vision as opposed to a character even when compared to the younger, more excitable Knives Chau, who seems nice enough but I’m not sure I could ever stand to talk to her for more than thirty seconds. Maybe some of this has to do with why the film hasn’t stayed with me all that much. I’m not sure what the answer is for the next film (the third in the presumed trilogy with Simon Pegg?) or even if he wants to go more personal again—an 8 ½-style comedy about a film director who uses Twitter a lot? It would probably be a lot better than the film of NINE but is that really the answer? Besides, if I ever said some of any of this to Edgar Wright he could very well glare at me with anger and say that SCOTT PILGRIM couldn’t have come from a more wrenching, personal place from the very bottom of his soul. And all this has to do with my own personal response, my own attachment to SHAUN OF THE DEAD, anyway. It’s been a film I’ve been able to count on through the years and it’s still there now as I sit here and wonder what the hell happened this summer? What the hell do I do now? Am I ever going to feel like getting a new car again? Am I ever going to feel like I’ve moved away from the sort of thing Shaun is going through at the beginning of his story? Maybe part of my problem is that I’m looking for an answer to these questions by relating what I’m going through to movies and TV shows. But that’s just what Edgar Wright has always done, come to think of it, and maybe if that sort of thing results in a movie like SHAUN OF THE DEAD then it’s not such a bad idea after all.